It’s great fun to photograph fireworks, especially if your photos turn out well! Over the years I’ve done it with a variety of cameras and even a drone. But other than some casual tips for friends, I haven’t put together an article on the topic until now. Conveniently, Adobe has published some pro tips on fireworks photography from Ace photographer and now Photoshop Product Manager Katrin Eismann. I thought it’d be helpful to share them with our Datacolor community, illustrated with some of the firework images I’ve captured over the years.
Tip 1: Scout out the location: Be there before the show begins to find a good spot. The farther away from the fireworks you are, the longer the lens you will need
My Note: In addition to scouting out the location, it’s helpful to have a good idea where the fireworks will appear. For multi-night shows, more than one viewing is helpful. Professional fireworks displays are also time consuming to set up, so if you head over to the venue early, or often even the day before, you can try to chat with the crew setting up the launchers and ask them about the show and the potential best locations to watch.
While I only had a Sony RX10 all-in-one camera with me for this celebration, and no tripod, I knew where the fireworks would appear over the lake, and wanted to get both the partiers and the lightshow in the photo. Hand-held on a floating dock, so I used 1/9s and ISO 6400.
Tip 2: Use a tripod: If you don’t have a stable tripod, you can rest your camera on a stable surface. To avoid camera shake either use a remote shutter release or a self-timer of two seconds on the camera.
My Note: Excellent suggestions, but don’t panic if you can’t find a good location to stabilize the camera without holding it. I’ve had success resting it on a post, or against a column in a pinch. But, yes, a tripod is ideal.
In this case, I was again shooting hand-held with the RX10, at 1/3s, so I got obvious motion blur, but actually enjoy the effect it added to the image.
Tip 3: Adjust your auto-settings: Turn off in-camera noise reduction and turn off the flash. The extra light makes it harder for the camera to focus. Shoot in raw and use auto white balance since the dynamic range of fireworks against a dark sky is very broad.
My Note: As always, Raw mode gives you more flexibility, but isn’t a requirement. Note that if you do shoot in Raw, you can always change your white balance later. If you shoot in JPEG, check your results in the viewfinder as you shoot, so that you can see the effect of various white balance settings.
Tip 4: Set the shot: Apply good image composition by thinking foreground to background. Consider including a person, building or reflections in the foreground to create a sense of scale and show off the location. Take a moment to photograph the people that are watching the fireworks since their faces will often be well- illuminated and full of wonder.
My Note: This is one I wish I’d done more often. My early efforts to capture fireworks were focused almost exclusively on the colorful explosions themselves.
As Katrin points out, a good setting can make a big difference. In this case, Disney Castle makes all the difference, even though I was shooting hand-held with a circa 2008 Nikon P5700. 1/9s @ f/2.8, ISO 400.
Tip 5: Shoot early: Photograph as much as possible early in the fireworks display – the longer the show is, the more haze there will be in the sky.
My Note: Definitely, although typically some of the most exciting displays are later in the show. A de-hazing tool or even some good use of the levels adjustment can help in post-processing.
Tip 6: Capture light trails: To capture the light trails, set the camera to 100 or 200 ISO and shutter priority, starting with 5-second exposure. Increase or decrease the shutter speed to get more (longer exposure) or less (shorter exposure) light trails. For advanced photographers, use full manual exposure mode at 100-200 ISO with aperture f 8 to 11 and adjust the shutter speed as needed.
My Note: This strategy makes perfect sense, although personally I’ve had my best luck with shutter times of between ¼ second and 2-3 seconds. That tends to provide a clean look that I like, while longer exposures can get cluttered. However, a lot depends on the intensity of the display you are watching, and whether subsequent volleys appear in different places or all right on top of one another. If it is one shell, then the next, a longer time makes sense. If several shells are going at the same time, and the volleys are close together, then working with a faster shutter speed will help isolate the drama.
Here’s a case where I used a longer (for me) 1s exposure. As was often the case, I didn’t have a tripod (much of my firework shooting is on family vacations at the end of a picnic day!), so I got some nice trails and an interesting blur effect. Nikon D2H, 1s @ f/5.3, ISO 200.
Tip 7: Edit your photos: Use Lightroom to make the fireworks pop in your photos. Try lowering the highlights and raising the shadows sliders and enhancing the color profiles. You can learn how to edit step-by-step by checking out this guide, or just use one of the built-in presets to edit in one tap! Check out Adobe’s 70 new presets released this month – professional photographer Tobi Shinobi’s Futuristic and Nikk La’s Cinematic color-based presets are a great place to start for firework photos.
My Note: I don’t disagree, although Lightroom certainly isn’t the only tool capable of doing the job. If you have a favorite photo editor already, it may well do everything you need.
The extreme colors in fireworks can also wreak havoc with un-calibrated monitors, so it is really helpful – as always – to use a hardware device like a Datacolor Spyder to calibrate the monitor you’re using to do your post-processing work, and a photo-editing application that supports color management via ICC profiles.
You can definitely play with the colors of your fireworks photos, but in some they seem to speak for themselves as capture.
Exposure time can dramatically affect your composition. Here 1s was perfect for making the central shells look like radiant flowers. In the previous image, taken a minute later, 1/4s froze the action for a different look.
Here in California, drought and fire danger have curtailed many traditional holiday fireworks spectaculars, although some of the barge-launched overwater shows are still very impressive. If the water is calm enough, there can be some opportunities for reflections.
A number of point and shoot and smartphone cameras have added a Fireworks mode, but I’m fairly skeptical of how well those work compared to following these tips. Feel free to give them a try, but check your results and compare for yourself.
Have fun capturing some of the age-old magic of fireworks celebration. And if you live somewhere that they are prohibited without a license, do everyone a favor and don’t try and send up some of your own to practice. A sobering number of fires are started by amateur fireworks.